Director: Jonah Hill
Cast: Sunny Suljic, Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston
Watch Mid90s online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
90s nostalgia seems everywhere at the moment, from the likes of blockbuster films such as Captain Marvel to fashion trends and music. As a millennial who grew up in the 90s, it only seems appropriate that for his directorial debut, Jonah Hill would return to that decade. With Mid90s, Hill tells a coming-of-age tale that pays homage to the likes of Larry Clarke, Harmony Korine and Gus Van Sant, who have all dealt with gritty, realistic coming-of-age stories in urban settings.
Hill’s film is less gruelling to watch than Clarke’s Kids (1995) but it lacks the emotional punch that Clarke’s film delivers. Mid90s, at times, feels like it’s trying too hard to be edgy and, at some points, the film becomes a drag (even though its runtime is a lean 85 minutes).
Hill is clearly making this film as a love letter to his youth, and those who don’t belong to that generation may find the film difficult to relate to. Still, he has managed to make an impressive transition from actor to director, and 90s kids everywhere will recognise the film’s references to everything 90s related.
The film follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic) a 12-year-old in Los Angeles from an unhappy and slightly broken home. He lives with his single mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), and his bullying older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). (It is never really explained where the boys’ father is, although we find out that their mother had Ian when she was barely 18 years old.)
The relationship between the brothers is heartbreaking, as Stevie clearly looks up to Ian, but Ian is often so violent in his rage toward his younger brother that the scenes between them often descend into him attacking the boy. If you find it tough to watch children in any sort of peril, then Mid90s will be an excruciating watch.
One summer, Stevie is alone and comes across a skateboard shop where a group of chilled, laidback youths just happen to hang. Slowly, Stevie is integrated into the gang, which features the likes of Ruben (Gio Galicia), F*cksh*t (Olan Prenatt), Ray (Na-kel Smith) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin). Ray seems to be the leader of the gang and someone the others all look to, and he becomes a surrogate older brother for Stevie. There seems to be tension between Ray and F*cksh*t, as F*cksh*t is keen to party and have a good time, but Ray is serious about becoming a skateboarding pro. As time passes, Stevie becomes drawn further into a world of skateboarding, drugs, sex and alcohol… and all before his 13th birthday.
Mid90s may be set in the world of skateboarding but we see very little action, in terms of stunts and tricks, which is a shame, especially considering there have been recent skateboarding films such as Minding the Gap and Skate Kitchen that managed to blend drama and skateboarding together more effectively. Clearly, Hill is far more interested in covering the grittier aspects of life as an adolescent, but with such a short runtime and a slightly underdeveloped script, the film never really delivers a gut-wrenching punch; while awful things have clearly happened to these kids, we spend so little time getting to know them on a personal level that the emotional connection isn’t there. The film’s biggest weakness is its conclusion, which seems rushed and ends abruptly without giving the viewer much satisfaction.
Hill clearly has an ear for dialogue, and the scenes where the boys simply sit around playing games and dishing out insults are by far the most entertaining moments of the film. The mise-en-scene and the soundtrack are all steeped in rich 90s nostalgia and, as a result the film feels very authentic, like a time capsule that Hill has dug up to share with the world. The central performance from Suljic is certainly worth watching for and his earnest, childlike charm often keeps us engaged with the film even when it starts to lose its way.
Certainly, we need to keep an eye on the film’s very talented cast and it will be interesting to see where Hill goes next with his directing. Mid90s skates along smoothly but it hardly soars.